When to have a bug tracker

Back in April, I wrote a post about how the traditional “file a bug” or “patches welcome” responses to issues weren’t always helpful. For as long as open source software has been something I think about, I’ve been of the mind that bug trackers are a necessary component of a project. After all, if we’re going to take advantage of the “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” philosophy, someone the eyeballs have to be able to communicate information about the bugs.

But then “magnus” made a comment that caused me to question that requirement.

A free sw project should not have a bug tracker unless there is enough organization behind to actually service the reports IMO. Unfortunately many hosting sites have the mentality that they throw in one for free in every project since it “can’t hurt”.

The more I thought about this, the more I agree with it. I think there’s active harm in having a bug tracker that is ignored. Without a bug tracker, someone might file a bug via email, or maybe not at all. Worst case, they probably just go find another project that meets their needs. But once the door is open to filing bugs, people have an expectation that the bugs will be fixed. Bugs that sit in the tracker forever don’t make people indifferent, they make people angry.

If your project lacks the resources or the desire to manage bugs, then it’s probably best to not have a bug tracker. When I say “manage” bugs, I don’t necessarily mean fixing them. Bugs need to be triaged, they need to be verified, they need to be fixed. Critically, the people filing the bugs need to feel like their contributions are valuable. Of course, the contributions are sometimes not valuable, but that’s just an opportunity to help someone learn how to become a valuable contributor.

magnus went on to talk about how bug trackers are implemented:

Also I don’t know if putting a bulky database system between the users and the developers, which makes sense in the commerical world, really makes the best use of the strength of the free software community.

Something more lightweight and free form would be better in many cases. An interface something like this very blog commenting interface could be appropriate. Here I just write what I think and I don’t feel any social expectation that you will reply to it (but would be fun if you did).

I think Bugzilla is a great platform for certain large projects. It’s absolutely atrocious for a casual user. And it’s complete overkill for small projects. Simpler interfaces like GitHub’s Issues can often be just as valuable with a lot less friction. Something even simpler like Trello might be suitable for small projects. Whatever the developers will use works, so long as they use it.

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